I swim most mornings. It is a good time for me to reflect.  Today, I recalled a team leader that had struggled with when and how much to let stakeholders share their opinions, concerns and feelings. It led me to wonder more broadly, when, if ever, do leaders need to STOP listening.

Research and best practice show that the most successful leaders have great communication skills.   In addition to making their messages heard and felt, they also know how to listen.  They focus on their conversation partners, teams, and constituents without allowing themselves to become distracted.  They are mindful, and know how to take in and accurately interpret both non-verbal and verbal cues.  These master listeners use what they hear to inform their thoughts and actions.  In my work with MBA teams, new leaders, executives, and entrepreneurs, I see no lack of opportunities to learn to listen more fully.

Of late, however, I’ve been noticing that some of us need to learn when it’s time to stop listening.  More precisely, there are times when we need to stop taking in information.  Now I realize that I learned this lesson from my Tanzanian guide the day after I summited Mt. Kilimanjaro.

When Its Good Not To Know What You Don’t Know

I’d been hiking for nearly a week on the Lemosho route with only my guide and the porters when we got to the campground from which we’d summit.  The weather had been lovely but it was getting colder as we climbed.  The plan was to head out from Barafu at midnight to make it to the summit, Uhuru Peak, at sunrise.  It was windy and cold when I went to bed after supper.  When my alarm went off, I forced myself to put on my headlamp, get dressed, eat, grab my pack and poles and leave my not-so-warm tent.   For the next seven hours, in the pitch black, bitter cold night, I needed all of my mental, physical, and emotional resources to keep going.  It was steep and breathing was difficult.  More than a few times the 60-mile per hour intermittent winds en route to the summit threatened to throw me off the mountain.  Despite it all, I followed my guide 7+ hours up the mountain, listening to every word he said, matching every movement he made.  I stayed totally focused on following precisely and obediently since it was pretty clear that my life depended on my doing so. It was very hard.  I was frightened. But I knew that my guide had done this tens of times and trusted that if it were not safe or possible, he’d have us turn back.  We got to the top just after sunrise.  It was beautiful.  Clearly I got down the mountain, too (a story that I’ll save for another time).

When Listening Can Kill You

So, what does this have to do with NOT listening?  I learned that lesson the following day as I compared notes with others who’d set out to summit when I had.  I discovered that over half of the climbers and their guides, almost all more experienced than I, had failed to reach the top.  The winds and the cold were so severe that day that many aborted their attempts part way up or simply didn’t didn’t try, a huge sacrifice given that those who fail to summit on their scheduled day rarely get a second chance.

I was shocked.  I turned to my very experienced guide and asked whether he had known about the weather when we set out.  “Yes,” he said calmly.  He shared that he had expected difficult conditions but decided that the combined strength of my body and my convictions had made it possible that we would succeed.  He then added, “We couldn’t have done it if we had not been alone when we set out.”  I was puzzled.  He continued, “If you had heard about the weather, had known the physical difficulty of climbing under yesterday’s conditions, or had felt anyone’s fears and doubts, you probably couldn’t have made it. You needed all of your focus, confidence, and certainty to summit safely in those conditions.”

Sometimes Leaders Must Manage Resilience By Limiting Communication

Great communication is critical to setting a team’s direction.  It helps the team generate strategic and tactical decisions that are wise and informed, making use of the relevant expertise and data available.  Inclusive, consensus-creating conversations ensure that the team’s resources are mobilized to deliver optimal results. Leaders must listen with their entire being to be sure that everyone is in agreement and committed to success.  In short, leadership requires Direction, Alignment, and Commitment, and it takes good communication skills to get there.

However, successfully implementing strategies to achieve stretch goals requires that we fragile human beings work very hard on many levels.  To do that, we need to be resilient.  Resilience requires the active management of our personal fuels – our Personal Resources.  These are the physical, social, psycho-emotional, and social energies that fuel all of our actions.   When publicly expressed opinions, irrelevant data dumps, and negative emotional states (like doubt and fear about conquering an upcoming challenge) surround us, they can drain the cognitive, emotional, and psychological resources that we require if we are to succeed.  A good leader helps her team stay resilient and avoid unnecessary depletion. When summiting Kilimanjaro, my guide protected me from the dissenting opinions, unnecessary weather data, and the fears of others (including his own) that, by depleting my emotional and psychological resources, would have actually have increased my risk of injury or death.

So, when IS it time for leaders leading tough initiatives to STOP themselves and others from listening?  Here are my first thoughts about six necessary conditions:

  • the team has Direction, Alignment and Commitment (Leadership) in the system.
  • the team/leader has made a reasonable/compelling decision, a plan and a strategy,
  • the appropriate authorities have assessed the feasibility of implementation under the current conditions and have decided to move forward
  • the team has agreed to follow the designated leader,
  • updates on volatile conditions and calculations errors are available, AND
  • depletion from distraction, confusion, doubt and cognitive overload could jeopardize success.

THEN, it might be wise for you and your team to protect your precious personal resources and have the courage to STOP listening.

Let me know what you think!

Take care,

Dr. Edy Greenblatt


revised 26 April 2017


Do Leaders Ever Need to STOP Listening? A Resilience Lesson from my Tanzanian Mountain Guide